One writes a blog without knowing who is out there. Some are trying to reach a farflung audience -- national, maybe -- or a particular layer of society, most commonly what is called the “chattering classes” -- meaning those who talk and write all the time, often about artistic or historic matters. Somehow the phrase always suggests India to me, I think because Chatterjee is an Indian word and partly because that country has an uncommonly large and capable members of that class.
But particularly on this blog (I also have two others), I imagine my audience to be in this geographical region. A subcategory, probably one quite a bit smaller, is those who have the same interests that I do -- which is what drives my choice of topics. I’m hoping that includes reservation people.
Those who wish to write -- or maybe those I wish would write -- are at the heart of that. When I started out with the Merry Scribber , I intended to provide a source of materials for teaching high school English. But what I’m finding is that I’m more likely to be read by the college student -- and on the reservation that means not late teenagers but early middle age -- say, forty. These people are now ready to write, if they only knew how to begin. At over sixty I feel just about ready to begin and knowledgeable about how to do it. The eighty year olds, except for those who have been writing all along, are beyond the physical labor of writing -- even handwriting, and much less the technicalities of keyboarding. So I’m going to another level, but in addition to the elementary exercises, which are often fun.
The other day I got a box and began gathering all my “how to write” books into it. I had to go get a second box. It’s time to confront these books, digest them and maybe dispense with them, but I think I’ll review them (on the Merry Scribbler blog) as I go. There’s not time (I don’t mean time in my day, but rather time in my LIFE) to reread them -- but I can note their style and method. They’ve become more talismans for success than real reference sources anyway.
One I know I will keep (among some others that I still use) is the most recently acquired. It arrived on Saturday, when the post office is closed except for the letter boxes, but the postmaster heard my voice and stepped out to hand it to me. (I TOLD you she was a peach!) “Narrative Design” by Madison Smartt Bell. I discussed the first chapter, “Unconscious Mind,” on Merry Scribbler 1-7-06.
Bell speaks of the right-brain as being the location of the subconscious, at least as we use it in pursuit of humanities: art, music, books. The point of his discussion was that writing workshops teach craft but NOT the right brain issues: how one gets access to what is stored there, what might happen if one does it too clumsily, and what to do with what you find. Most people, thanks to Freud who thought up this word and sensationalized it by positing that mostly it’s full of sex, will admit they have a subconscious but hugely overestimate how much control over it they really have -- even the people who drink and take drugs in attempts to evade it.
The image I always think of is the one in the first Star Wars episode where the main characters are trapped in a trash reservoir, full of what seem to be machinery parts half-submerged in water but also inhabited by predatory, tentacled, and probably carnivorous creatures we never see unless dragged under the surface by them. (The Blackfeet have had a vivid fear of being dragged under the water by monsters, some declining to learn to swim since struggles are hopeless against greater forces that want you to drown.)
The major component of that unconscious is one’s experience of acquiring and giving meaning to the sensorium of life, but that’s another blog. There’s also a lot to be learned from the actual brain machinery and cultural context.
Clinical Pastoral Education is a specialized program that educates aspiring ministers. Rather like boot camp, it is also meant to flush out the undesirable. In the context of a hospital, where all the patients are on their way out -- one way or another -- each student is pressed hard to reveal their unconscious and conscience. Each small group of students is in the care and under the scrutiny of a leader, who also belongs to a small group of leaders who are under the guidance and ethical restraints of their own leader, who is also in a small group -- and so on. These are little mini-congregations, not unlike writing classes or AA.
Learning to write, says Bell (quite memorably) is not just a matter of learning craftsmanship: punctuation, grammar, metaphor, and so on. When I was teaching in the Seventies, we were willing to discard all this stuff and drive our hands down into the mess of the mind to shake hands with the tentacles. Now we seem to have done an about-face and to almost actively suppress the news that there is something under the surface. It was just too damned scary.
Who wants to know what it’s like inside the mind of a suicide-bomber? That’s part of it. Anyway, not many people can express what they find -- the mere fact of the discovery seems enough.
And as the economic times thin out and become taut, how much anger, contempt, remorse, ecstacy, pride and ethical standard does one dare reveal? I mentioned CPE because it was originally designed for conventional, rather repressed, young men in a culture that believed in maintaining a front. If the CPE pressure necessary to get that sort of person out in the open is applied to someone like myself at forty, someone who has already seen much trauma and drama, the leader may be overwhelmed. And he was.
He said, “I don’t want to get old and pick up a novel by you to find myself splayed and excoriated.” He said that he’d imagined we’d be buddies and happy to share beer and pizza in some bar some day. Too bad.
A lot of whites who hope for access to the cultural subconscious of Indians also imagine they will someday share beer and pretzels as buddies. They have no idea of the rage, the indignation, the thirst for vengeance, the greed, and the bloody-mindedness of people with seething sub-consciousnesses -- at least when they’re over forty. This is why readers misunderstand Sherman Alexie, even Indians.
I don’t have much idea of what’s in the unconsciousnesses of the TV generation. They have the sense not to share with adults. I think they are quite invested in withholding, so that it’s hard to get them to write anything at all. They decline to be taught about themselves. Just give them the craftsmanship lessons, so they are correct enough to earn a living.
What really counts for a writer is the courage to extend enough tentacle from the depths to hold a pen or at least keyboard.